ATLANTA Georgia's governor on Friday signed a tough new state law cracking down on illegal immigrants that is similar to one enacted in Arizona last year, handing new powers to police in the southern state.
The law authorizes police in Georgia to investigate the immigration status of criminal suspects they think may be in the country illegally.
It also makes transporting and harboring illegal immigrants a crime and requires many private employers to check the immigration status of newly hired workers on a federal database called E-Verify.
Republican Governor Nathan Deal said the measure, passed by Georgia's Republican-controlled legislature, will take a burden off schools, hospitals and prisons by reducing the number of illegal immigrants in the state.
"This legislation is a responsible step forward in the absence of federal action," Deal said during a signing ceremony.
Enforcement of U.S. immigration laws traditionally is handled by federal, not state, authorities.
The Georgia measure is the third crackdown to be enacted by Republicans at the state level, following Arizona in April last year and Utah in March.
Critics have argued that the Georgia law could discourage tourism and overseas investment in the state and create a shortage of farm workers to pick crops.
President Barack Obama last month criticized the Georgia measure, saying, "It is a mistake for states to try to do this piecemeal. We can't have 50 different immigration laws around the country. Arizona tried this and a federal court already struck them down.
A few dozen protesters gathered outside the Georgia Capitol before the signing and more were planning to rally against the new law at a nearby church Friday night.
J.P. Hernandez, a 20-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, said the measure will encourage profiling of Hispanics by law enforcement officers.
"You'll be innocent until you look guilty," said Hernandez, a restaurant worker who was 2 years old when his parents brought him to the United States.
'DARK DAY FOR GEORGIA'
In addition to concerns about civil and human rights abuses, critics of the law said it could have serious economic repercussions for the state.
"Today is a dark day for Georgia," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, or Galeo.
Opponents warned of a possible economic boycott to Georgia, similar to one estimated to have cost Arizona more than $140 million in lost tourism and convention revenue last year, according to one study by a liberal group.
They also predicted costly and drawn-out litigation similar to what has unfolded in Arizona and Utah.
Last month, a U.S. appeals court upheld an earlier court ruling that blocked key parts of Arizona's law from going into effect.
Among provisions stayed was one that required police to determine the immigration status of a person they have detained and believe is in the country illegally.
A federal judge temporarily blocked a milder immigration law in Utah on Tuesday, the same day the law went into effect.
Deal said Georgia anticipates a legal challenge to its law, which takes effect July 1, but said it was written to avoid the "pitfalls" of Arizona's legislation.
The governor told reporters he hopes Georgia will not face boycotts but said those losses would be lower than the costs the state currently incurs from illegal immigration.
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor; Edited by Colleen Jenkins, Jerry Norton and Bill Trott)